HYPE AND HOPE AT VIRTUAL U.
Discussions about the implications for higher education of digitised and converged communications and information technologies have been premised upon a good deal of hype and hope. The hype has been generated by that odd mix of technological utopians and industry players who envisage a paradigm shift in education, as in many other areas, where an old order of inflexibility, massification and proscription gives way to a seamless new order of flexibility and self-realisation for all. This is an educational equivalent of the `friction-free capitalism' which Bill Gates muses about in The Road Ahead. Much of the hope has come from progressive educationalists and those who draw upon the possibilities of new media forms such as hypertext, who draw attention to the potential for information technology to promote interconnected and student-centred forms of learning. With the release of the West Committee's Learning for Life report on the future of Australian higher education, these hitherto arcane discussions have moved sharply to the centre of considerations about the future of universities.
The West Committee's report is an odd mix of market-oriented reformism and deterministic radicalism, with the schizoid divide within the report (and, one suspects, the West Committee) tending to emerge whenever the subject of technology in education emerges. The report presents arguments for a `decade of managed change' towards a system of higher education which recognises near-universal demand, promotes lifelong learning, integrates the vocational education and training (VET) sector more closely with universities, and reconsiders how to achieve the diverse objectives of education policy to promote access, research and scholarship, and interaction with industry, government and the community. Whenever the impact of information technology is discussed, however, the report turns sharply to accounts of the imminent collapse of Australian universities if they fail to meet the challenges presented by information technology and the internet. At these points, Learning for Life unashamedly adopts the rhetoric of technological and educational progressivism in order to advocate a market-based operating environment.
Demand for technology-based education
The demand for information technology in higher education and for its use of flexible delivery stems from five sources. These can be placed upon a continuum, from those which have been most concerned with enhancing the educational and democratic potentials of the new technologies, to those most concerned with capturing its potentialities for commercial profit.
First, the nature of the Internet itself has encouraged many within higher education to test its possibilities. Its ability to promote forms of decentralised, open, interactive and free-flowing communications seemed to stand on its head the remorseless march, over two centuries, of massified media and one-way, top-down communication. Here was a medium which was relatively easy to learn how to use, produce material on and teach with. The fact that the development of content on the Internet has been driven for so long, not by corporations or governments but by a culture of DIY-enthusiasts committed to free expression, is as true of innovations in online courses as it is of the proliferation of websites.
A second significant factor in extending the use of information technology in higher education has been the promotion of its ability to enhance student learning. A link has been observed between the `hypertext' nature of online content and the promotion of active learning, and this has been combined with advocacy for the `socially distributed' nature of knowledge on the World Wide Web, and the ability of students to seek information outside of the parameters set by academics.
A third factor is the need to enable access to course materials off-campus. In the universities which have a basis in distance education, such as Charles Sturt University, Deakin University, Central Queensland University, the University of New England and the University of Southern Queensland, information technologies offer the advantage -- assuming that students have access to online computers -- of `virtualising' distance education. In light of the growth in the continuing and professional education area and the turn towards lifelong learning, as well as the demands of part-time study, it is likely that all universities will be required to ensure access to course materials in a `location-independent' manner.
Fourth, delivery of courses using information technology is being driven by the concerns of all universities for survival and viability in a highly competitive educational environment. While the era has not yet arrived where students mix and match offerings from different educational providers to produce a `shopping trolley' degree, there are clear pressures on the universities to deliver their courses in a more flexible manner. The fact that about 40 per cent of Australian university students are now part-time or distance-education students has proved difficult for many to grasp.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the possibilities in higher education for information technology to replace higher education staff, or to drive down costs by replacing full-time academic labour with a mix of contract staff and new media technologies. It is not surprising that the so-called greenfield universities, such as the University of Phoenix, pride themselves on their ability to cater explicitly to the needs of the adult or `continuing and professional education' (CPE) learner. They have close to 100 per cent contract teaching staff, extensive use of decentralised classrooms as an alternative to the bricks-and-mortar university, and a tailored approach to the delivery of programs which meet industry preferences for being `just in time, just down the hall, and just enough'. More surprising, perhaps, is the role played by institutions such as the New School for Social Research, a New York institution historically populated by dissident scholars and marxist emigres from Nazi-controlled Central Europe. It is using the rhetoric of flexibility and the potentials of information technology to undermine the position of full-time tenured staff so effectively as to become a model of best practice for Forbes Magazine. The West Committee is quite explicit, if abstract, in its desire to hitch its wagon to this star, when it lauds the potential for web-based technologies to lower the variable costs of educational provision by replacing teaching staff with the purchase or licencing of `learning packages'.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this substitution of labour by technology is educationally undesirable, and probably commercially unviable. From the economic point of view, studies of the costs and benefits of the use of information technology in higher education have revealed the lack of agreement about what constitutes a tangible benefit (how is `culture change' to be calculated, for example), the lack of consistency of cost calculations in various studies, the tendency to ignore below-the-line costs of unfunded activity in the development and preparation of technology-based learning materials, and neglect of the extent to which costs are passed on to students. (They are in some cases required to print out all materials themselves rather than have a learning package sent to them through the post.) While many educationalists have actively supported greater use of information technology in course delivery, there has been a growing concern that technology-supported education must not be sold on the condition that it is cheaper, but on the basis that it can be better. This is to counter the tendency to assume that such technologies are a `magic bullet' or `magic box'. Delivering courses through the World Wide Web does not guarantee learning, any more than libraries on campus do.
The myth of technological redundancy
What is apparent in debates about the reform of Australian higher education at present is that although all these arguments may be true, they may be beside the point. There has been an enthusiasm, within both DEETYA (the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs) and the West Committee, to link the possibilities for the use of information technology in higher education, to the notion of imminent threat to existing Australian public universities from new providers able to deliver the `virtual university'.
However, the outcomes of a recent international study of the likely future involvement of global media corporations in higher education indicated that rapid expansion of involvement is unlikely in the near future, due to the perception that the sector was not profitable. Corporations primarily involved with traditional mass media, such as News Corporation, TimeWarner and Disney, are not rushing to be involved in becoming `virtual universities'. For those with stronger links to the university sector and a stronger commitment to research and development as well as employee training, such as computing and telecommunications companies, a distinction was drawn between involvement in the delivery of programs (carriage) and the development of programs (content), with the latter being seen as the proper preserve of universities and other specialist educational providers.
More substantive medium-term threats emerge from US-based new educational service providers such as the National Technological University, the expansion of operations by specialist corporate trainers such as the Global Knowledge Network, the `re-branding' of the training divisions of major corporations such as Microsoft, Motorola and Deutsche Telekom, and the development of courses which utilise information technologies for international delivery in the `virtualisation' of distance education programs.
As far as the likely impact of the emergence of new players, the principal issues will be establishing accreditation procedures for Australian higher education, ensuring consumer protection for those who choose to enrol with new providers, and domestic institutions' responses to the possibility of international alliances with overseas universities, corporate providers, or each other. Central to any realistic response is the recognition of the differentiated nature of `students', between those involved in traditional undergraduate or postgraduate education and those involved in lifelong education areas, with market-based competition from non-traditional providers likely to be far more concentrated in the latter sector.
Denouncing the digital university?
There are many critics of the future envisaged for Australian higher education by the West Committee -- more deregulated, market-based and technology-based. Academics and student unions have regularly denounced the rise of `corporate managerialism', insisting that it treats the university as a business, students as consumers and education as a product, and that it threatens cherished traditions of academic freedom and independent inquiry. In short, it undermines the idea of the university. In his paper `Digital Degree Mills: The Automation of Higher Education', David Noble describes information technologies in higher education as principally a management tool, supported by various commercial interests, for the commodification of instruction and the deskilling and disempowering of academics, who will become redundant as they lose control over their intellectual property.
Noble's warnings about the dangers information technologies might represent for higher education are salutary, and a useful corrective to the mix of techno-boosterism and rhetoric of educational progressivism often found in accounts of technology-based `flexible learning'. But it is also a partial account, possessing many of the problems found in earlier marxist accounts of deskilling in manufacturing industry. The most notable of these problems is the assumption that management's ownership of new technological forms in the workplace automatically translates into control over the uses of the technology, rather than technology being the subject of negotiation and conflict whose outcomes are not predetermined.
Moreover, Noble has underestimated the significance of the potential of information technologies to deliver some forms of education and information -- Noble's own paper, for example -- more effectively to a wider community than is possible with print-based forms. While Noble points to the potential for coercion in putting materials online, up till now the history of content on the Internet has been more about the pursuit of individual enthusiasms than about the application of institutional power. Wholesale adoption of such anti-technology arguments would place academics in the anomalous position of being a group who heavily question the contribution that information technology can make to student learning and access to course information, while themselves relying heavily on information technology to surf the Internet.
Rhetoric which opposes detached scholarship and the liberal cultivation of the mind to narrow vocationalism and the instrumental reason of governments and university administrators is ultimately unconvincing. `Personality as a vocation' may be a status-ideal in sections of the arts and humanities, but it has little to say to those involved in business studies, engineering, the sciences, information technology and so on, who need to think through the relation between ethical and practical reasoning in quite different ways.
Opposition to the massification of higher education also has a vague whiff of elitism about it. In the Australian situation such opposition fails to take account of the rise of the post-1987 universities, the former institutes of technology and the amalgamated regional campuses, and their decidedly un-Kantian orientations in applied and vocational education and open and distance education. Yet in the arts and humanities, for example, many of the most significant innovations of recent years, such as interdisciplinary studies, and the linking of theory to cultural and media practice, have emanated from outside of the traditional disciplinary institutions.
Many of the issues involving the use of information technology in higher education are as much broader information policy issues as they are sectoral issues. Few significant stakeholders outside higher education would disagree, for instance, with the argument that growing demand for lifelong learning will mean that practices associated with distance education and computer-assisted learning will have to move from the periphery to the centre of course-delivery practice. Yet academics are also right to draw attention to some of the potential dangers, such as the narrowing of curriculum goals, the corporatisation of intellectual property, the elimination of face-to-face contact, growing inequalities of access between students, and the replacement of full-time academic staff who pursue research and other public activities, as well as teach, with short-term contract trainers.
While the West Report locates significant issues arising from the impact of information technology in higher education, its proposals for change are undermined by its desire to contrive markets and talk up the threat of new providers, in order to introduce deregulatory strategies whose implications have not been adequately thought through. In that sense, as a blueprint for change in higher education it is distinctly inferior to the Dearing Committee's Report in Britain, which placed issues of lifelong learning, equitable access, quality of teaching, accountability and institutional partnerships, and academic freedom at the centre of its concerns. In its inability to grasp the significance for the development of Australia as an information society of demand for online services, locally produced online content and equitable access to information technology, and by being dazzled by the panic rhetoric of supply-siders, industry boosters and free marketeers, the West Report is comparable to other Howard Government information policy statements. The challenge for those concerned with the educational and social goals of universities will be to link demands for educational equity and academic autonomy to a more inclusive vision of the information society.
Terry Flew is a Lecturer in Media Studies at the Queensland University of Technology. He has recently coauthored an international study for DEETYA on the likely impact of global media and communications networks on Australian higher education, titled New Media and Borderless Education: A Review of the Convergence between Global Media Networks and Higher Education Provision.
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|Title Annotation:||educational technology|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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